Released Aug. 29, 2014
Rated R – 1 hr 33 min
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Starring Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge
Intrepid archeologist Scarlet Marlowe (Weeks) assembles a crew to find a forgotten passage of the Paris Catacombs in search of the Holy Grail of medieval alchemy – The Philosopher Stone. They are not prepared for the secret that lies inside.
As Above/So Below is a found footage film that places a heavy emphasis on building its story before getting down to business. There’s still plenty of shaky cameras, yelling, and suspension of disbelief – all hallmarks of the subgenre – but its unusual focus on character exposition and narrative context sets it apart.
As Above/So Below plays as a rather rare type of feature – a horror adventure. The prologue would be fitting of a Tomb Raider adaptation as Scarlet Marlowe, with a name ripped straight from a 1940s random character generator, sneaks into Iran incognito and risks life and limb to recover a mythical artifact from a subterranean demolition site, barely getting what she came for as the blast chases her to the exit. It’s a damn good start and Perdita Weeks puts on a pretty decent Lara Croft audition. We then get to know her and her ambitious objective better as a videographer documents her efforts, which leads to the recruitment of a translator, with which she shares an unspecified complicated history, and a team of urban explorers to delve into the infamously creepy Catacombs. If that sounds like a lot of set up for a found footage flick, that’s because it is. As Above takes its time to craft an intriguing plot inhabited by actual characters.
This was writer-director John Erick Dowdle’s fourth horror film and third in the found footage style. That experience shows with a level of confidence and polish that is uncommon in a format used by many a first-time filmmaker. The second act, in particular, is fantastic, as the team descends into the bone-strewn Catacombs (a place made for horror but bafflingly underused) and encounters numerous puzzles, traps, obstacles, and increasingly strange occurrences that make for a truly riveting watch. The third act, however, feels as if Dowdle looked at his watch and said “Oh shit! We gotta wrap this up! Everybody go! Go go go! Shake that camera more while you’re at it too!”
The comparably slapdash climax to an otherwise great build-up is rather a shame too. While this is certainly one of the better found footage flicks, and definitely one of my favorites, it falls short of a modern classic and is forced to settle for ‘surprisingly good’. Obviously, that’s still good, and if you checked out on this often-criticized corner of the horror world without having seen this movie, consider giving it a go.
As Above/So Below gets a